Thursday, July 31, 2008

Somewhere Tim Berners-Lee is weeping.

A very funny account of the amusement park rides that include Led Zeppelin: The Ride.

Led Zeppelin_The Ride

From John Kelly's Voxford:.
"All the roller coasters at Hard Rock Park feature floor-mounted speakers that ensure your screams will be nearly masked by high-fidelity music. On Led Zeppelin, they played "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band."

More funny at the link.

My take on Led Zeppelin, The Ride is here. (From a safe distance, natch.) It mainly concerns the demiurge Urizen and how his dogged devotion to precision drains the spontaneity from the universe he created, but it's definitely about the rollercoaster ride. Promise.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Piper's Calling You To Join Him

So follow, follow, follow,
The merry, merry pipes of Pan,
The magic reed
That charms at need
The heart of maid and man. Ah!
Away, away, they seem to say,
And catch us if you can!
Come follow, follow,
Where they lead,
The merry, merry pipes of Pan.

--The Arcadians

I bought Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka this week. Well, actually I bought Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka. I learned afterwards there is a difference.

I've wanted this record in a vague way for about 38 years. It was released in 1971, and the description of it at the time floored me. Now I'm (temporarily, until the hyperinflation hits in a few weeks) avec cash, I had the opportunity to buy it. Not on vinyl, but on a nice CD, complete with minuscule liner notes in 6 point type, as is their wont.

What I had learned originally and treasured over the years was that this was the sound of holy musicians, possessed drummers and enthusiastic pipers, calling the god Pan into their village. It was, I was told, trance music of the most extreme kind, uninhibited by the formal flourishes of western music.

The liner notes, in this edition sliced and diced in an appropriately Burroughsian cut-up fashion, are very thorough. Brion Gysin, writing in 1964, explains how the god visits the village. A boy is chosen, sewn into black goatskins and given a straw mask and hat. He becomes Bou Jeloud, and as this god, identified with Pan, he walks amongst the screaming, ecstatic musicians as they drum and wail on their raitas and pan pipes. Taking up branches to use as switches, according to William Burroughs, he runs to whip the women just around midnight. They run screaming from him – in a Panic. If he touches them with the switch, they will fall pregnant. On the third day he will meet a goddess; he will use his knife, an iron smith-worked tool, to protect himself against her prehistoric feminine power. He will, the liner notes say, be somewhat taboo for the rest of his life.

Stephen Davis says that the musicians play at the feast of Eid el Kebir. Brian Jones came to the village with Gysin, a woman called Suki, and the sound engineer George Chkiantz to record the master musicians. Buried in the small print is the admission that he came in the summer of 1968, not on Eid el Kebir. The musicians played for him anyway, and he recorded what he could of their music. Gysin said, "They put on a little synthetic Boujeloudiya so they could get a taste of it on tape. It wasn't really authentic. It was all they needed."

Quoting Gysin, Davis tells the tale of Suki. He did not want her to go to the village. "I told them it was no place for a woman," he said. "But she wouldn't listen and absolutely insisted on coming." They cut her hair and dressed her as a man. Brian was a hit among the dark skinned, dark haired villagers. His bushy blond hair and white skin stood out. He internalized their awe; at one point he saw the villagers lead a white shaggy-haired goat to slaughter for the feast and gasped, thinking it was he himself being led to the knife.

What does this music sound like? The liner notes, attributed to Gysin and Burroughs, say "Listen to this music, the primordial sounds of a 4,000 year old rock n' roll band. Listen with your whole body, let the music penetrate you and move you, and you will connect with the oldest music on earth." Perhaps; it's nothing like rock n' roll, of course – that's just something people say to get you to experience it. The road from Twenty Flight Rock or Splish Splash (I Was Takin' a Bath) to Boujeloudiya, the shrilling of 20 raitas and thundering drums, is a long and winding one. But it's not discontinuous. It sounds very much like a drum circle at a modern summer rock festival. It's hard to say whether there's any deliberate imitation on the part of the modern festival-goers; it seems more likely that this is the sound musicians come up with under ecstatic circumstances. It's tempting to see if the music 'works' as trance music in the same sense that you might buy some Salvia to see if it 'works' as a hallucinogenic. I suppose it does, if you want it to, though if that's really what you want, going to a festival and joining a drum circle yourself would be a better move.

What is bothering me most, though, is that this record contains music 'like' that played at the festival, rather than the music of the festival itself. I was not seriously expecting Pan to come and visit me while I listened to a CD in my car. But even so, now that I'm aware of it, it seems fake. Fabricated. Non-authentic. I had been willing to take my chances on whether the tape recorder could capture a spirit (in the same sense, I suppose, that a camera can capture a soul) but instead I find the spirit had not been present while the tape was running. George and Brian recorded musicians around a fire eating goat liver, not a festival. It sounds the same, but it isn't.

The original record was titled "Joujouka" and this release "corrects" that. When I look it up on Wikipedia, this isn't so much a correction of the spelling as a selection of terminology that favors one set of "master musicians" over another rival group. This trope is certainly well known in rock n' roll. One is familiar indeed with the part of the story of Everyband where an outfit called something like Rory Ramone and the Ramone-Tones tour the windswept coastal cities of southern England and exchange subpoenas with another touring band called something like The Original Ramone-Tones Featuring Rory. This is a very secular sounding tiff, although I have to say schism-generation seems to be standard operating procedure for magical orders as well as rock n' roll bands, so perhaps it is a sign of spiritual authenticity.

As a final disappointment to this long story, remember Suki, who went to the village even though it was 'no place for a woman'? What happened to her? Was she driven to ecstasy by the music, ripping off all her clothes and dancing under the new moon, giving away her forbidden female status? No, actually. Was she found out and raped by evil swarthy tribesmen? Nope. Surely she was at least courted by a young man who adored her and could not reconcile her status as a man with the overflowing love in his heart until it was revealed – ta da! – that she was truly a woman, upon learning which he swept her off at once to be married? No. In fact nothing happened at all. They went in, recorded all night, ate Brian the Goat and then left for Tangier the next day.

Phew, rock 'n' roll.

I wonder what Brion Gysin and William Burroughs actually heard there, in the fifties? Now that would be a record to get. Perhaps in another forty years.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Life on Fail

Ever heard of Bechdel's Criteria? I was reading Charlie Stross' blog and having a good chortle at everyone scrambling to see if their favorite movie met the criteria, and then, today, suddenly found myself wondering if my *life* met it.

The test, which is designed to see if the writer/scriptwriter of the movie (or book) even considers women to be people, goes like this:

1. Does it have at least two women in it,

2. Who [at some point] talk to each other,

3. About something besides a man.

Charlie goes on to clarify:

The reason Bechdel's test is important is because it's a diagnostic indicator for the objectification of women. It's designed to identify the kind of film where, if two women talk to each other at all, the only subject of conversation is men (or babies). What it tells us is that our current movie and (to a lesser extent) our TV culture is pathologically misogynistic — be it in in the adoption of conservative Kinder, Kuche, Kirche values or the more extreme violence of women in refrigerators.

Over at Charlie's Blog, people are finding out in droves that very few movies, comics or books meet this simple test.

And I'm finding out, that except for work, which doesn't count because I don't get to choose who I talk to or what I talk to them about, my entire life fails the Bechdel Test.

I talk in general to 'people' on this blog, on LJ or on message boards. I write stories for 'people'. I talk to a man and two iguanas and four geckos and about 20 fish at home. On the private messaging systems I mostly talk to women - and I talk to those women about men, since Led Zeppelin, Paul Kossoff, Jason Isaacs, Darth Maul, Luke Skywalker, Grand Moff Tarkin, The Pretty Things and all the Krewe I care about are actually men (or imaginary men).

I'm not sure what to make of this.

It's possible that when I tell people I can't stand John McCain and don't like Barack Obama that I'm not actually talking about 'men' - after all the Presnit of the Untied States is an office rather than a gender -

- but, wait, I just remembered I had that conversation with two men, so it fails checkpoint two.

I talked with the woman on the checkout counter at Vons today about the lighting in the new look "Lifestyle" section, but now I come to think of it, discussing the lighting in your local supermarket not exactly a feminist manifesto. And I exchanged PMs with a female novelist yesterday about writing, but the subject was how to write believable male dialogue about sex.

I'm screwed.

Edit: Seven geckos. (Sorry, little hangar lizards.)

Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I hadn't really wanted to spend much time on this blog talking about work, but you know, work is where things happen to me most.

A large part of my job is intracompany communication, which is a bit like being the child in a sitcom marriage.

"Tell your dad he can cook his own breakfast."
"Dad, mom says cook your own breakfast."
"Tell your mother to p*** up a rope."
"Mom, dad says..."
"I heard him!"

Anyway, yesterday, I got a verbal agreement from 'mom' to produce an item, and I phoned 'dad's' sales rep to let him know he could contact the client and make the sale. I told him that I'd get it in writing from 'mom' as soon as she was back in the office. To my considerable astonishment, he gave me this spiel about how he couldn't believe I had to get it in writing and he had a verbal to go ahead with the bid and people should be as good as their word and this was beyond belief yadda yadda.

Do other companies really perform hundreds of thousands of dollars of work based on an email and a couple of calls from the sales rep? I don't think so. I mean, I've *read* ISO 9001. "Have a drink with the sales rep and go ahead and produce what you think he was talking about relatively soon in case the client has some timelines or anything though they probably don't" is not a paragraph I remember from the ANSI Standard.

I said, "Look, I didn't know we were hiring extraterrestrials. On Earth, we generally get things in writing before we bank the million plus greenbacks. I advise you to go native in this respect."

Actually, I didn't say that. That's why I'm saying it here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

If you want to get a head, get a hat

HR gave us managers a talk about dress codes today. I thought I'd heard it all before but apparently not. I was enlightened in two aspects: No hats allowed; no visible tattoos.

The hat thing floored me. But most people wanted to talk about tattoos. "What, you have to cover them even on Casual Wear Fridays?" someone asked, to murmurs of irritated encouragement.

I was phoning into the meeting, so no one saw me laugh. Even on Casual Wear Fridays? Either tattoos are stigmata marking you as a skanky proto-rapist with poor impulse control, or they aren't. I don't see what difference it makes whether it's Friday or not. I was more concerned about the hats. What have hats ever done to be unprofessional? A scant generation or two ago it was dee rigger to wear a hat, now it's deprecated. That's just fashion and I really don't see where HR get off being fashion police. Aren't they already busy with being attitude police, thought police and police police? Don't they ever get enough?

Jimmy Page wearing a hat

Jimmy Page wearing a very professional looking hat
of the sort one ought to be allowed to wear at work.

But no, it was the tattoos thing that was bothering people. It turns out that the objection to covering tattoos on Casual Fridays is that the poor inkee would not be able to wear a t-shirt like his or her colleagues on Friday, and would therefore be treated differently. Being treated differently is un-American. Fancy having to wear a shirt with sleeves or a collar on Casual Friday!

I'm not really sure I follow the rationale for Casual Fridays either, myself. Same objection as above. If clients think people in t-shirts can't do business, I don't see what the day of the week has to do with it. The existence of Casual Fridays proves that the dress code the other four days is just a demonstration of corporate power over the individual.

Then piercings were brought up and the fit really hit the shan. You can't cover up a pierced nose. Well, you can, but it would look funny. Some people have pierced noses because of their "cultural background" so we had a bit of a to-do over whether say, being of Indian descent was more of a meaningful cultural background than say, being a Burning Man-going drum-circle type of person. Once again, if it's allowable because it's your cultural background I don't see how you can say no to anybody. Nobody mentioned pierced ears, which I'll bet is due to the fact that almost all the white women have pierced ears. Even I do, although I regret it and hope that the holes will disappear one day.

I'm not sure what was decided because I'd sort of drifted off by then, but eventually someone brought up hats. Hooray! A hat defender. They said that people wore hats in the walk -in freezer to protect their ears. They're allowed to do that, HR said. Aha! A chink, if I'm allowed to use that word any more, in their Human Resourcical armor! Everyone rushed in like the Terror of Rue Morgue to exploit this exciting loophole, and HR found themselves narrowly avoiding being mandated to buy hats for everyone as a safety issue for walk-in freezer purposes.

I have heard it said that in some countries people work to produce goods, and this leads to the creation of wealth. I've often wondered what it would be like to work at a company that produced something. Anybody know?

Monday, July 21, 2008


Courtesy of octopus scout Oceangal, more fascinating octopus footage. Er, tentaclage. First a pair of them chatting together in their eggs as one hatches, and then a startling bit of footage as an adult is trained to open jars to get at crispy juicy crabs inside.

Octopus skilz

(The site has embedding instructions but I couldn't manage to follow them, so that's an old fashioned link instead.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Let the Sunshine In

A woman's work is never done. Yesterday I came home and mopped the solar cell array on the roof. Ah, 21st Century, how I waited for you... and you gave me this.

It was utterly filthy with a sort of London Brand black soot or smut that wouldn't shift with a hose and soap alone. I should get a couple more kilowatt hours a day out of it now.

If you're wondering what the man of the house was doing - perhaps twenty-first centurily eating protein pills and flying around with his jet pack - he was actually on the roof too, fencing it against wild animals. Plus ca change there too.

It's true the wild animals are raccoons, but when they've fallen 10 feet into the atrium and can't climb out again they are like compact cornered bears. They regularly hold Fight Club meetings on the flat roof and I suspect it's the losers who fall off the beams into the house as they are wobbling off home.

I Love the Who World

Here's another version of the Discovery Channel's I Love the Whole World - this time with clips from Dr. Who which are even more lovey than Discovery's.

Happy belated birthday to STB!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Play It Loud

I thought I'd blogged about The Loudness War before, but I guess not. So that means you won't be at all surprised I've changed my mind.

Here's the YouTube video, The Loudness War.

In a nutshell, for those who won't or can't click, it bemoans the recent tendency for CDs to be mastered louder than before. Since there's a maximum dynamic range for a CD, turning up the basic music loses the contrast when a quiet piece of music is punctuated by something punchy, such as a drum beat.


These two frames are taken from the YouTube video (all credit goes to the uploader, Loudness War). The first one is highly dynamic, not-loud mastering. The second one is all loud, but has been 'turned down' so you're not blown away like Pete Murphy in the Maxell Ad.

You can see that the difference between the two massive peaks (the initial drum beats) and the general level of music has completely disappeared. The video uploader says this is a bad thing, because if you want music loud, you can turn it up. But once the variation in music is lost, nothing will put it back in again.

And I agreed with him or her, when I thought I'd blogged about it before.

But, I just got back from the gym. Yes, the gym again already. And I think I know one reason why people have started turning up the background grunge and losing the dynamics. I have a theory!

I was on the stair stepper watching a TV program in Spanish on a cathode ray tube TV with horribly shot electronics that made the electron gun track badly, while listening to Massive Attack's Mezzanine using a Zune with earbuds. The stair stepper is loud, I'm surrounded by the noise of running feet and the pop award program on the TV keeps egging its audience on into bursts of applause after each boy band's little dance-up. This means that the music from the mp3 player had to be loud, or I'd have heard something annoying, like Real Life, intruding. Wouldn't want that. So you have to turn it up loud.

But Mezzanine is perfectly mastered and in this track one drum sound - a sort of TOK! which I guess is the drumstick hitting the metal rim of the snare drum - is far louder than the background music. Turning the music up to the level where it obliterates the Real World means that the snare drum is acutely painful to the ears. (And I've gathered this is not a good thing.)

The next track was something from ZZ Top's Eliminator, a fast, sequenced grungy boogie where everything was pretty much the same loudness. You could turn that up to the extent that no background gym noise broke through, and yet the music never pulled any surprise loudness changes that make the ears cringe away from the earbuds. (Also it meant that my stair-stepper rate went up to a steady 120 bpm, but that's another story.)

I think that's why the loudness is going up in modern CDs and mp3s. More and more people are going everywhere with earbuds in. They enjoy smothering the real world with their chosen sounds.

Loudness War, the uploader of the YouTube video, quite likely listens in a specially designed suite where the stereo space and the dynamic range spread the music out in a marvellous vista of size, depth, peaks and valleys. So do many other audiophiles.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to drown out the ad for a soap opera called Fuego en la Sangre and a program with thirty Mexicans dressed as Hawaiians doing a dance routine on a "sand" covered stage while around me ten people run thunderously nowhere on stair-steppers. Don't need no snare drum today. Just need the constant volume.

Show you my explosion

This reviewer in Chart Attack liked watching Alison Krauss and Robert Plant together in Toronto. In fact he had a suggestion for how to have multiple duet fun!

The whole thing really makes you wonder what other collaborations are out there waiting to happen. Personally, I'd love to see Burnett get Iggy Pop and Nancy Sinatra together for a record. But for now, I can handle Plant and Krauss.

I bet Iggy Pop would love to sing with Nancy Sinatra, as well. They both had a song about boots, so they have common ground. I'm no Lamb Chop Burnett but I think this would be happening.

Iggy: Sweet 16 in leather boots
Body and soul, I go crazy
Baby, baby I'm a hungry, sweet 16
Funky bar all full of faces
Pretty faces, beautiful faces
Body and soul, body and soul
I give to you
Nancy: You keep playin' where you shouldn't be a playin
and you keep thinkin' that you´ll never get burnt.
These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do
one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
Iggy: I must be hungry 'cause I go crazy
Over your leather boots
Now baby I know...
That's not normal
But I love you, I love you
I love you, sweet 16
Nancy: Are you ready boots? Start walkin'!

Iggy Pop, Sweet Sixteen

Nancy Sinatra, 1966, These Boots Are Made For Walkin'

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Starship Troopers on the ground

Dave ex Machina has a blog post about Star Wars Stormtroopers who...wait - don't go, this is interesting...really exist. The 501st is a legion of Stormtroopers (and other Star Wars villains) who dress up in fantastically accurate costumes and raise money for charity while being all Space Nazi on parades and at conventions.

He riffs on the strange irony inherent in seeing people dressed as mindless, genocidal infantry being hugged by little kids and having their photos taken with gran.

Suppose tomorrow the Bush administration announces plans to deploy thousands of Homeland Security Troops to American cities, to walk the streets armed in the search for un-American, possibly terrorist activities [...]
Obviously there would be some outrage, yeah? I mean, not as much as there should be, but a lot of folks wouldn’t care for this at all.

Now imagine that these troops are outfitted exactly like Stormtroopers from Star Wars.

What percentage of geeks would declare that this was awesome?

What percentage of non geeks?

Then he takes it from there.

The whole thing, as is required on teh intarwebs, eventually dissolves into a massive argument on the comments list. This time it's between people who think it's odd that people dress up as fascists for fun, 501sters who don't think it's odd at all, and people egging both sides on with judicious pokes. It's one of the few arguments I've read where Godwin's Law doesn't apply. Unfortunately nobody gets hot under the collar about the plural of octopus either. I usually enjoy that when it happens.

There are some cool pictures of Stormtroopers, including one of Stormtroopers playing Twister.

Thanks to Blitzen for the heads up!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

More gym news!

Back to the gym today, so I've now managed to keep this up for at least a week. Good going! There were still two 45 pound plates on the incline leg press, of course. This time I decided that, in the interests of a) not being arsed enough to take them off and b) steadily increasing the weight I use, I left them on.

It turns out that 90 pounds here or there doesn't make much difference to legs, so I managed ok. That was the good result. The bad result was I'd forgotten that if I was to be true to my own principles, I still had to take the plates off the machine when I'd finished. So I had to unload the machine after exercise instead of before. Typical!

Since I go late in the evening, there's always a couple of women there spreading dirty water on the dressing room floor with a filthy mop. Today she started out using a vacuum cleaner with a metal attachment to make hideous scraping noises on the tiles before going on to spreading the dirty water around. I let it dry a bit before I had a shower. I always use the same shower in there, and the drain is always blocked. I've given up avoiding it on the grounds that if the owners don't care, I don't see why I should. There's another drain a few feet away that the water eventually goes down, so it's not like it ends up in the chiropractors next door or something. It gets about four inches deep before it starts to drain. Incidentally, it was already blocked when I last had a bout of going to the gym, last October. Soon we'll be able to celebrate the drain blockage's birthday.

First time I went there, another woman was looking suspiciously at the dirty-water-spreader and asked "What sort of disinfectant do you use?" and the mopper said, "Descaler". The customer clarified, "Any bleach or disinfectant?" and the mopper said, "Descaler is disinfectant." So now you know.

My SO read a review of this particular gym from a random internet type that said he had no idea how he got through a workout there without getting ringworm. I haven't got ringworm yet, either, but I did get a nasty rash a few years ago. I assume I'll get a verruca from the blocked drain one of these days.

On the other side of the equation, this gym really is very close to my house.

As I was leaving the membership checking guy was strumming an acoustic guitar and a customer was telling him a really fascinating tale of all the different strum patterns he knew. I bet guitar guy gets that a lot. Q: What acoustic guitar tunes do they play in a gym? A: Power ballads! I wrote that one myself.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mooning the Amtrak: Local Culture post # 1 in a series of 1

Orange County, CA is, or at least was, a very conservative area. When we first moved here we had never seen more BMWs, Volvos, Corvettes, or Italian sports cars in our entire lives. It's odd then, that the cultural highlight of life in Orange County is "Moon the Amtrak Day", held on the second Saturday in July each year.

It has a website,, which has instructions on how moon safely and constructively. According to the Sunday July 11, 1999 edition of The Orange County Register, the article "Full moon over Amtrak keeps Laguna Niguel tradition alive", the tradition started as follows: "Twenty years ago (1979), at The Mugs Away Saloon, a K.T.Smith told his buddies he'd buy a drink for all who would run outside to the rail road tracks and "moon" the next train, which many did. The mooning tradition has prevailed, but there is no longer a volunteer to buy free drinks for thousands of "Mooners"."

People have shown up to moon ever since. I went once, when I first came here, and it's been on my calendar to go ever since, although without fail I have managed not to get there. The inability to attend extended to this year, which is lucky, because this year the mooning crowd got its ass busted. So to speak.

According to an LA Times article, Police halt 'mooning' of trains in Laguna Niguel after a crowd of 8,000 gathers, "Police were called out to break up the annual "mooning" of Amtrak trains in Laguna Niguel on Saturday when the crowd grew to 8,000 and many began baring more than just their behinds."We had some mooners and some female flashers and some people who were nude altogether," said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "There was also lots of drinking. We felt that it was in the public's interest to shut it down.""

Friday, July 11, 2008

Why I trust the internet

Someone on one of my message boards today posted that Urban Legend about the Nova not selling well in Spanish speaking countries because it means "no go" in Spanish. I've heard this a thousand times and there's no evidence that this is true, or at least that it was true at the time the Nova was on sale. (The ubiquity of the myth on the internets has muddied the waters.) I posted the standard refutation – the Snopes page. It's not perfect, but it's available and it's readable and well-researched. He wrote back to say "I tend to rely on at least one other source than the internet, which is often my memory" with the clear implication that someone "relying on the internet" was a moron.

Now, what I posted, was, admittedly, available on the internet (that's the only thing you *can* post) but was written by people I've known vaguely - as well as I know this guy – since 1995 or longer, about 15 years. Endless discussion over this issue took place on a Usenet newsgroup called alt.folklore.urban, where about fifteen regulars, using real names or unmunged handles, discussed and sifted information on this and every other Urban Legend as it came in. I believe them, because I've interacted with them for years and they are actual people who have devoted considerable time to this, and many other more fascinating issues. But to this poster, Snopes is "the internet".

It made me wonder about "the internet". The people whose only interaction with the internet is to read information from it, or watch porn, or both, must think the 'the internet' was put into place by Magic Overnight Fairies, who are capricious and frequently wrong, and therefore the internet is an unreliable place of great pitfalls and lies. And yet on this particular group, where the post quoted above was made, there are the usual sprinkling of wizards or gurus who Know What the Frell They're Talking About. I won't name names, but let's say that Jimbo has every Led Zeppelin bootleg ever released and Elisa can date a picture of any concert from the band's costume, stage set and audience. If Elisa tells me that a particular picture is from Kezar, June 2, 1973, and Jimbo tells me the available bootlegs are Who's Next, Imperial Kezar and so forth, then I have a choice. I can put the information into the "my trusted friends" category and act on it, or I can put it into the "found on the internet" category and discount it. In their case, I'll act on it.

So, where did I get my confidence in 'the internet', which clearly and self-evidently is stocked by con-artists, politicians, amateur liars, mad people, people with an axe to grind and folks who want to sell me something?

I got that confidence by being here before 'the internet' was built. Let's look at that for a minute. Searching on "who built the internet" and "history of the internet" brings up thousands of posts about Tim Berners-Lee, Al Gore, Transatlantic Cables and Arpanet. B-O-A-R-I-N-G! I don't, at this point, care that deeply about nodes, the Department of Defense and/or hypertext mark up language. No wonder the fairy theory is popular.

Who actually put all that content up there?

Well, I don't know. I thought I'd better put that up front since this post started out with a "I know what I'm frakking doing" statement. Web and Usenet history is so well-known to the real pioneers that if I say I know, I will be corrected, forcefully. So, I admit I don't completely know. But I've been told. And unlike most people, even people my age, I have lived it. I just didn't write it all down as it was happening.

I started off in Usenet, before there was a web. Usenet was first up and running in 1979. It was originally designed to share "news" articles written e-mail style by one person and uploaded to a backbone of computers where the article could be grabbed and read by other users. To help sort the articles (even though only a few a day were anticipated), there was a naming hierarchy so that the articles could be sorted and placed in a number of "newsgroups". A post to a newsgroup could be replied to by any user and all other users could see both original and reply. If you read the original article and the reply together, you were reading a "thread". Usenet is not hypertext based (of course, there are html news articles nowadays), so a thread was a thread. To find a related thread, you had to keep up with the news and remember where the original was.

The original computers in the system (1980) were:

......uok ----duke---unc
............. ./......\

Arpanet and various mailing lists joined on to this until it became – wait, get this – a world wide web! (But not *the* world wide web (WWW). That came later.)

Within a few years, thousands of users were sharing news articles. Gamers, of course, were early adopters. Unix wizards appear to have been 97% [1]of the population, but despite that, the number of articles continued to grow rapidly until there were literally tens of thousands of newsgroups available, millions of articles and hundreds of thousands of users.

I was online in 1992 (possibly earlier; I can't remember) through Compuserve at home and a work email address borrowed from a friend's workplace. The original newsgroups I subscribed to included alt.folklore.urban, which discussed Urban Folklore, as in the commonly passed-around material that Jan Harold Brunvand wrote books about – the baby in the microwave, the Red Velvet Cake Recipe, the Death Car and so on. In those days, since there was no internet or even email for most people, all folklore was passed by word of mouth, or by careless media called 'vectors'. (Now that the internet exists, urban folklore eats its own tail, and so alt.folklore.urban is basically useless. If you go and look at it today, you'll see it's a pale shadow of its old self.) The first recognizable post of mine still in the Google archive was to alt.folklore.urban on February 27th, 1995.

Usenet is very different from what most people call the internet, the WWW. You don't need a browser to connect to it (although most people these days do connect through a browser), and you don't read "webpages" written by businessmen or salesmen or media outlets. You talk, in an email-based way, with thousands of users of like mind, who have self-sorted based on the newsgroup names, or their charters, or in some cases have squatted an unused newsgroup and just began chattering on it. Take a look at one of my favorites, uk.rec.sheds!

What is usually known these days as the internet is the World Wide Web. This is a series of documents (now a rather large collection) which are linked together by navigation elements called hyperlinks. A document hyperlink is an address that can be typed into a "browser" which will then display the document on the user's computer. In the document may be other hyperlinks, which a user can click on to go to the next document, and by "next" I mean the next one to catch the user's eye. The documents aren't actually in any order, and anyone can upload a document to the WWW, tell someone the hyperlink address, and that person can find it, read it, and link to it – but not alter it.

The WWW took off in 1993 with the introduction of the web browser. Funding for the first high-profile one, Mosaic, came from the High-Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, a funding program initiated by then-Senator Al Gore's High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 also known as the Gore Bill . (I thought I'd just throw that in, in case anyone asks.) Mosaic was rapidly displaced by Netscape, and then Netscape was more or less destroyed by Internet Explorer, which started in 1995. With the introduction of IE, the WWW was readily available to people with PCs and little computing experience.

Much of the WWW is composed of documents put together by big companies, governments, health organizations and so on, who need a big soapbox to shout from. Other documents come from grassroots people – fans, collectors, hobbyists, photographers, anyone who has interesting stuff to share with others. A middle ground comes from larger companies who put up web pages and then ask their users to fill the pages with "content" for free, which they then sell, or they sell the advertising. YouTube will take your videos. Flickr or Photobucket will take your photos. will take your fanfiction. Allrecipes or Foodnetwork will take your recipes and publish them, asking little except a treasured family secret in exchange for nothing at all. IMDB will take your movie reviews and your hard-won knowledge of movie crew and cast. Clever sites do many of these things at once – Amazon will try to sell you something, but it does it by having previous buyers rate what they bought and review it, providing content; and their software aggregates buying habits of people like you and they like in order to prepare suggestions for what you should buy next. Some folk believe in the Wisdom of Crowds and have built Wikipedia, to which you can add your own information.

Google has made a point of providing astonishing tools to people and not actually asking for anything in return except your personal details, every document you've ever written, whether uploaded or not, every email you've ever sent or received, every trip you've ever taken and every web search you've performed, which they will sell to the Martians in 2009 in exchange for nice uniforms and swagger sticks. [2] And I for one welcome our new Martian overlords.

Another subset of WWW comprises the areas set up by companies to allow people to express themselves. Blogspot and LiveJournal give you a place for a personal soapbox. MySpace and Facebook and so on provide an area for you to advertise yourself and keep friends informed. Tens of thousands of message boards, many with minimal advertising and owned and operated by private citizens paying out of their own pocket, have been set up on thousands of topics.

The last category is similar to Usenet, and it is still the way I spend most of my online time now I've mostly transferred to the WWW. I belong to literally dozens of Message Boards, User Groups, Notice Boards, Groups, Live Journals, Blogs and so forth. The content in these web pages is dynamic, and is almost entirely written by individuals. Most of it is in the form of posts, whether at a regular frequency, like a blog, or in response to other's posts, as in a message board. The individuals may be named Gandalf, or JimmyPage666 or RavenRoseGoth, or whatever, but each one is a human being, not a conglomerate or an agency. I have half a dozen names out there myself, mainly to keep straight what I'm supposed to be talking about, although, to be honest, there is a certain amount of not wanting my friends to meet my other friends, and god forbid, talk about me behind my cyberback.

Each of these people is known to me. I haven't been round their houses. Most of them are a continent or more away. I don't know what most of them look like. But over the weeks and months, the ones who come back, who make sense, who can read and write, who are respected by their peers – these people float to the top in internet culture. They used to be called gurus or wizards, but I guess the web doesn't bother with titles like old timers did. The respect is earned the old way, over the years. I trust them, at least in their chosen fields. I don't trust 'the internet'; I don't trust Exxon, or, or Wikipedia, or But I do trust the wizards.

[1] Made up figure
[2] Made up business plan

Further reading: 1993 article by Bruce Sterling on the History of the Internet.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Squeeze my lemon

Harper's Magazine has a piece on "Culture-Bound Syndromes" which sounds really boring, but they've picked the most exciting one to chase down and use as an illustration: it focuses on Penis Thieves. I remember reading about penis thieves in Private Eye's Funny Old World column (or whatever it was called then) in the 1970s. The newspaper clipping described Africans running around with their privates held in their hands, believing they were shrinking and eventually disappearing,whereupon they would die.

The Harper's article, A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves, is written by a man who went to Nigeria in the midst of the current penis-stealing epidemic and asked a few people there how the witches do it, and what it felt like.

The article also discusses latah, a sort of zombie-hood in which the sufferer is unable to resist orders from others, and amok, episodes of senseless violence, among others. The name "culture bound syndromes" was given to them by a psychiatrist called Pow Meng Yap in Hong Kong in the 1950s.

It's a difficult subject to confront in an article, because it's funny if you don't believe in it, but it's literally deadly serious if you do. Many of the accused "witches" have been torn apart by mobs and the lives of the snatchees permanently affected. The fear suffered by someone who thinks his penis has been stolen is very real, and the panic that follows is real and spreads fast (the true meaning of 'panic').

It made me wonder about our culture and what Culture-Bound Syndromes we have. More or less by definition, we wouldn't know we had them, because they are part of our culture. ("We" here is generic Anglo-American.) We know white Europeans did have them; there's a bit in the article about the Malleus Maleficarum, which apparently has several chapters on European witches and their membrum virile-stealing ways. Then there's the case of nostalgia. For most of us today, nostalgia is a sort of wistfulness that comes over us when we think about something from our childhood and is about as serious as a desire for another latte. But when the word nostalgia was first coined, it was a serious condition that afflicted Swiss soldiers – in many cases the homesickness was so severe that the soldier died. Another, more recent, panic is McCarthyism, the belief that your neighbor may have looked as American as Betty Rubble but she was secretly working for Uncle Joe, helping him overthrow the United States.

But today, what widespread penis-thievery-level panics are there? What completely irrational fears, deeply believed by small sections of the non-mentally-ill population? My entry for bizarre modern white culture-bound syndrome is the "Satanic Ritual Abuse". Most people have heard of it; enormous numbers of people believe it is happening, and a fair number of people claim it's happened to them.

"Witchcraft" can still happen.


Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
By Charles Mackay

Ponzi Schemes, Invaders from Mars & More Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
By Joseph Bulgatz
(Update of Mackay. Even more interesting but no preview on the web.)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

As you may know, I saw Robert Plant play with Strange Sensation last year. They're a proper rock band, playing some mixed modern music, a little folky here and there but basically rocking out. I had a great time.

A friend of mine saw the Plant/Krauss show in Memphis this week. She didn't like it. Her feelings about the whispered, banjo-led arrangement of Led Zeppelin's Black Dog were less than entirely positive. I haven't seen them live, but I've heard the album, Raising Sand, and I've watched their version of Black Dog, and her sentiments certainly echo mine.

I've read review after review of this tour that rhapsodizes about Alison Krauss, Genius Producer T Bone Burnett, eerie Down to the River to Pray and beyond earthly Sister Rosetta Something Something. Some of these reviews are so fulsome I've wondered many times if the reviewers are telling the truth. Are they, a voice at the back of my mind wonders, perhaps telling us how great the Emperor's New Clothes are because they'd get noticed if they didn't say that?

Here's what I think. I think listening to Robert Plant sing Black Dog as quietly as possible accompanied by a banjo is time that could be spent more productively, e.g. scraping that weird black paste made up of old skin cells and grease off the car's steering wheel where it mysteriously accumulates.

It was mildly amusing at first to see a major cultural raider like Plant abandon his pet Mississippi delta bluesmen, Chicago bluesmen, Egyptians, Moroccans and other "others" who never had the dollar to push back, and instead latch on to a rich white woman, but after a while I got pissed off that he'd selected a *woman* to anoint with his Rock God elixir. I bet he would never pick on someone his own size - i.e. a male star of a western non-rock idiom.

Eventually, I realized he'd actually gone native like so many cultural tourists do and started to side with "Americana" over rock. Living with them might not have turned his brain on its own, but he may have driven over the edge by having Jimmy Page hassle him for more Zeppling after the December reunion gig.

Watching Robert Plant sing Black Dog with this band is akin to watching a victim of Stockholm Syndrome beg to wash her kidnappers' socks. He's gone native now and isn't coming back - bully for him, but I don't have to like it.

In case you think I'm overreacting, here's the July 3rd Phoenix version of Black Dog.

At first I thought he was screwing with the audiences' heads - seeing how much they would take before someone shouted, "Lookee! He's got no clothes!" After a while I think I got what he was trying to do. By reducing the noise and the flash and limiting Black Dog entirely to feel, he's trying to bring out the sheer presence and atmosphere inside the song. Face it, it's a spooky number. There's a hysterical edge to it that takes it out of the ordinary. "Eyes that shine burning red, dreams of you all through my head" is adolescently transcendent.

The problem is, the rearrangement didn't work. There's an effortless spookiness to real blues players which means they don't have to go to the swamp; the swamp goes to them. Just a few minutes with Robert Johnson and you believe he did sell his soul to the Devil, because no one gets that supernatural edge unless something magic and inhuman oozed its way through the pores of in his reality like oil seeping through stone, darkening his words and haunting his guitar.

But that video of Black Dog just sounds like Black Dog played really, really quietly on a banjo with a fiddle.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Octopuses, again.

Do octopuses have a favorite tentacle? asks the Independent.

Claire Little, a marine expert at the Weymouth Sea Life Centre, explained: "Uniquely, octopuses have more than half their nerves in their arms and have been shown to partially think with their arms. "

I remember something like that from Blindsight. I'm pretty sure mammals partly think with their limbs too, but unless we unfortunately stumble into some Futurama-Disembodied-Head scenario, we probably won't be able to show it to any great extent.

The paper says, "Octopuses belong to the same family as slugs and snails, but scientists believe they are far more intelligent than their relatives." This is slander, of course, as they are in the Class Cephalopoda, and the slugs and snails are in their own Class, the Gastropoda. (Classes contain Orders, which contain Families, which contain Genuses, which contain Species.) They are all in the same Phylum, Mollusca, and subphylum, Conchifera (Shell Bearers), but still.

As a comparison, all mammals are in the same Class, so humans and naked mole rats are phylogenetically closer than slugs and octopuses. (We're in the Phylum Chordata, Subphylum Vertebrata, in case you're wondering.)

Anyway, the important thing is the octopuses have been given Rubik's Cubes to play with.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Peanut Envy

I requested a cup of peanut-butter and chocolate ice-cream from BaskinRobins, and my friend went to get it for me.

"It doesn't have peanuts on top," I said when it came back.

"No," said my friend, "They don't have peanuts any longer because 'people have allergies to peanuts'."

"Oh," I said, poking at the ice-cream with a plastic spoon, "isn't this peanut-butter and chocolate ice-cream?"

"Yes, it is," he said.

"Did you point that out to them?"

"No, by then we were already well into the does-not-compute part of the conversation."

I have yet to pluck up courage to ask how weird the first part of the conversation was.

It can be tough, as a Brit, attempting to buy common food items in Southern California. Fraught with dangers. Sometimes I think the life of a muskrat trapper in British Columbia must have been easier. At least it was more logical.

Live Music

Yesterday I wrote about live music. Impossible to copy, share or P2P, live music is both thriving and profitable.

The Sunday Times today had an article on the subject – "Computer says get a life – and we have" by Simon Jenkins. His argument is that futurologists are not completely correct when they point to the internet as the killer app in music. The internet has made recorded music easy to obtain. But, Jenkins says, futurologists are ignoring what Imperial College historian David Edgerton called "the shock of the old", which is to say human needs do not change over time.

The only thing that changes is the market's way to supply them. Downloads are virtually free, but not sufficient. One thing people have always wanted is live art, live music. Jenkins says, "Last year sales of CDs fell by more than 10% and prices plummeted, while attendance at live concerts rose by 13% and prices soared". He gives examples – Plant/Krauss, Prince. He says the "fastest growing cultural activity in Britain is literary and music festivals."

"People like people. They crave the immediacy of human contact and congregation. They want to see those who inspire or excite them live, not digitised. And what they want, they will pay for."

Will it replace the money bands used to make selling records? Of course – if you can draw people in to see you. As Bob Lefsetz says in his blog, " If I hear one more "artist" complain that he can’t make any money selling recorded music I’m going to explode."

"And you’ve got to play live. Not only for the performance fees, but the merch fees. It would be as if you could sell during sex. […] High on the show people will blow money they’d keep in their wallet the next week, if not the next day. And, having spent their money on merch, they’re going to utilize it, wear it, spreading the word."

Here's a picture of Jimmy Page, just because we haven't had one for a while.

Sorry, uncredited photographer – I didn't see a name
associated with it where I found it.

Trackback for this entry: Live and In Person "My thoughts that Peromyscus did not address were about what Jenkins said regarding cd sales falling and live music attendance increasing. Recorded music is heading in the direction of becoming the promotion..."

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I went to the gym today and there were two 45 pound plates on either side of the leg press machine *again*. Clearly the only way I'll ever get to use this machine is if I get enough upper body strength to unload it before I can do any leg exercises.

Led Zepagain

Music's everywhere now. Despite the best effort of the record companies and the RIAA to make it only available in formats people can't use at prices they can't afford, music escaped and is available to everyone, all the time. It's a law of unintended consequences, I guess, that something which is ubiquitous is hardly valued. Like writing, music is becoming something ordered up to fill containers provided by other people. Whether those containers are weddings, or DJs, or websites, or theme tunes for TV shows, or ads, music is so available it gets used by the bucket as filler. Music, even hard core, is just hard core to fill a void. "Content providers", they call writers. Musicians who can write content to order, like a Jamaican performer providing personalized music for a local sound system, will win out in this phase of the battle. That's a subject for a whole other post, I'm sure.

There remains one type of music that is rare, rationed, and normally very expensive. That is live music. It can't be copied; it has to be provided by other people. But folks like live music. Unlike music on an iPod, you experience it in extraordinary circumstances (you have to go to where it is being held), and the social interactions involved are very different and highly sought after.

I've mentioned before that music never dies – Within seconds, I can find and listen to The Hollies or Blind Boy Fuller or The La's. Live music is the exception. Most best selling bands are defunct as a live outfit and the few still touring play stadiums or arenas and charge a premium. And the void gets larger every year – the desire to see live music never seems to diminish, but the number of touring bands gets smaller every year. Enter the tribute band, which fills this void.

Last Friday I went to see a tribute band called Led Zepagain. As you might guess, they fill the Led Zeppelin live void. Led Zepagain work on the details of emulation very carefully, the idea being to recreate the original experience as closely as possible.

They were playing a local concert hall, the OC Tavern. I have no idea how the economics of live music in So Cal work. The OC Tavern can't hold more than 700 on the live music dancefloor. That night there were two bands on, and a DJ/Sound System on a smaller dancefloor which attracted exactly zero people. The bar/cafĂ© must have held 200 maximum. I know that slightly larger places like the Coach House survive with major bands and big-name live acts playing there, and smaller places always seemed to do ok. Perhaps the bars have some kind of device that silently vacuums money out of your pockets. It's the only way I can imagine they make a profit. It can't be the beer – you don't drink that much more because you're watching a live band.

I've seen Led Zeppelin themselves twice. I've also seen the band in person from a short distance, at The Song Remains the Same premiere. I've watched The Song Remains the Same so much I know most of the shots by heart. I have DVD. I made a start on the extra songs in the re-released The Song Remains the Same. I have a collection of every scrap of video of Led Zeppelin that has ever made it out to general-level bootleggers. So I have a good grasp of what Led Zeppelin looked like and sounded like. And if I wanted, I could play Zeppelin music constantly. I could watch them on my TV, or on my computer, around the clock. But I could never again see them live. And that's where Led Zepagain come in.

Led Zepagain blow me away. The recreation is uncanny – the sound is almost perfect and the visuals close enough to cause flashbacks. The wildly distorted scale – 1/40th the audience size, 1/10th the stage size – is a little disconcerting at first, but you get used to it. And best of all, you get all the benefits of live music.

The place was packed. The people around me were there to rock and did so with evident gusto. Most of them seemed to be Led Zepagain virgins, but all were converted by the energy, showmanship and virtuosity of the band. We all ended up dancing and singing along with the exception of a girl in front of me who wanted to play out some major life drama with her boyfriend. I guess getting to watch a living soap opera is part of the social benefits of live music I was extolling up there in the second paragraph.

Next weekend, July 12th, Led Zepagain will be playing the Santa Fe Springs swapmeet. Ticket price is one buck. Can't beat that.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Pet Hates (Part 6,432)

I went to the gym today. I go almost every day, except that about eight months ago I took a day off and didn't go back. It seemed mostly familiar - with the caveat that since it was July 4th, there really weren't that many people working out. There was someone there I haven't seen before, straining with 275 pounds on the incline leg press. When he'd finished he got up and staggered away and did some back exercise. I assumed that when his legs had forgiven him, he'd be back to take the plates off the incline leg press machine.

But no.

He left the plates on the bar after his next exercise too. Tubby white dude, probably 225 pounds, most of it in his beer gut, long kinky hair. Pretty old too, about 45. I'm talking about you. Yeah, you! You left your weights on the machine for the next person to deal with, you asshat! Perhaps you can't lift 45 pound plates and had to leave them on. Maybe that's why you were struggling to rep with such a girly weight on the machine. In which case I (mostly) forgive you.

It's up to the person who loads the machine to leave it ready for the next person - it's the rule at that gym as well as polite. I lost a lot of upper body strength after an operation a couple of years ago and I don't like lugging them around myself. Every time someone leaves a bunch of weights on a back or leg machine, or bar, it can cost me the opportunity to use it.


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